To coursebook or not to coursebook? is that really the question?

Geoff narrowed the topic of his talk clearly, but still the claim that this kind of CB is totally wrong and it is a problem rather than a solution for language learning rubs people in the wrong way. But they fail to focus on the matter. Before we come up with solutions, we have to acknowledge there is a problem, and also inform and discuss it as much as possible until we locally find a solution. It’s never about one illuminated person to offer solution, but for us to sit as equal where we are and discuss things openly. If of course, we put learning at the heart of our teaching!

Are materials for Kids grammar-based as well?

Although much value has been given to teaching instead of learning in practice things do not work like that. Books might tell what YOU ARE teaching, but it says nothing about what LEARNERS ARE learning.

But even so, most kids material brings activities that are much closer to the need of kids and they enjoy it. But this is only true because:

  1. Children’s errors/mistakes are usually overlooked for affective reasons and because they seem to have plenty of time to acquire the language.
  2. Everyone agree that children learn through play.
  3. Focus is on building vocabulary (lots of time can be spent with images and vocabulary games, hence why flashcards/realia are really popular with kids teacher.)
  4. Children are not taught grammar explicitely. They have plenty of opportunities to just use language in fun ways (games, songs, stories, etc.)

On the other hand teens and adults,

  • are taught more often than not grammar explicitly and very little room is given for learning language implicitly. The social aspect of language learning might be completely ignored, among other things.
  • errors are taken much more seriously. Materials that follow a structural syllabus give a lot of room for controlled practice. Get it right from the beginning as Lightbown and Spada describes it.
  • As for play, there is a huge misunderstanding. Through play children learn about the world and develops their oral skills in their L1. The literature that talks about childhood play is talking about the natural development of children where make believe is key for children to make sense of the world. Educational play is fun, but it is not real play for development if the focus is the language and not the act of playing. While kids have all the time in the world (this in practice is not true for CBs for kids either), they are expected too to move along the syllabus, but they will rarelly be hold back.
  • Teens/adults material focus little on vocabulary. And let’s not get started on vocabulary research.

Was Geoff talking about all coursebooks? Peharps, if they fall into his description of an ill-informed coursebook.

Is process syllabus better than product syllabus? Anyone who has had the experience of negotiating with learners and using digital tools or what learners bring to class, know it is really more engaging. In fact, we have tons of webinars, blogposts and workshops being given around the world from teachers for teachers sharing projects and ideas that do not fall into the CB type of activities.

Are there teachers who might lack the kind of training to take a process syllabus into their hand? Sure. Teacher Development should be core to our profession, not an option.

Ok, we have all kinds of realities out there, but what was Geoff really talking about?

The fact that CBs are designed around a structural syllabus should be enough for us all to be questioning it if it goes against learning. Teachers can’t be that blind. We get pulled into heavy-grammar teaching because the thing is there is front of us all. The whole material screams for grammar from cover to back. No matter how beautifully grammar get disguised. And what about the constant crash of beliefs? Learners and teachers alike are constantly negotiating with or without the coursebook. I’ll safely say that 50% of the time there is some kind of tension when you are using CBs. We ended up not managing learning, we end up managing to convince learners to do tasks and activities, some of which they have mininum interest in. I haven’t seen one coursebook that one student fell in love with or didn’t want to change things on it.

All CBs not matter how well designed they are (they are good in their own right of course), they won’t reach learners especially in an age where apps and internet tools are at the hand of our learners. Geoff wasn’t discussing teachers and learners’ beliefs but gave an overview well painted of what the industry is. Hugh Dellar gives even a more complete picture  of the industry in his post.

In addition to all of this, the vision of language contained with coursebooks differs quite considerably too. What might be dubbed the English File school tends very much towards a presentation of language as discrete structural grammar and predominantly single words, which generally need only to be matched to basic definitions.

Hugh Dellar

Every teacher knows that input and practice does not translate into accurate language use just because we want it to. Deep down, we all know there is something odd and rarely we have the time or energy to give it much thought (or research). We also know that most of our learners are not able to use a certain grammar point accurately after few lessons, and that some of them won’t be able to use it accurately in their speech or writing even after six months of seeing it over and over again. But the illusion that they can come from using the language mostly in controled situation or being guided by the teacher. Let go of that and teachers will freak out, I agree, but for the wrong reason. Because they are usually afraid to see how complex learning is and probably do not know how to deal with it. TD is key for change. Praxis is key for TD.

Again, What kind of coursebook is Geoff talking about in his talk?

One that has a grammar-based syllabus and one that Dellar recognizes as been established. So, why are we talking about Geoff and not this instead?

Geoff Presentation - Slide 3 #iELT15

Geoff Presentation – Slide 3 #iELT15

So, let’s face it. The CBs that Geoff is critizing for ages (not only him by the way) goes against research findings and it can only make me angry that it took me so long to discover that. How on earth I was led to believe that PPP lessons would make learners learn language accurately and fluently? At some extent it provides the kind of instruction that some learners need and it is neat, but those learners are usually the ones who actually have an experience with English outside the class. They are usually not afraid to use the language in conversations or being corrected. In fact, these are very few in my context. They make teachers smile every time they open their mouth and if teachers let them, they will dominate the class. This is what the structural syllabus does. It makes teacher believe that the right coursebook will provide learners with what they need and if they fail is because they (students) haven’t done enough. Even I fall in this trap sometimes because there is a demand to move learners to the next level and it falls on our lap to decide whether they make it or not. Now how demotivating is it if you have to repeat the same book again?

I’m not trying to simplify the matter, because it isn’t simple. However, how can we pursue change if we just continue to accept things as they are opposed to what it should be? What is the point of investigating our practice if we can’t change anything? Can we really teach language without considering the people in the room? Their stories, beliefs, assumptions, dreams, fears, desires, who they are, why they are there and what they bring to class? And what to say about how all that might affect learning?

A post I totally recommend is Phillip Kerr’s Anaylitics and Elt Courses Materials. At the end he makes a point that is hard to contest. And if you take the time to watch Geoff’s presentation will see that what Geoff is trying to say is not new for those who reflects and read, but yet not have really reach teachers around the globe. So Geoff’s call for us to start looking at things locally is not an unreasonable one, difficult I guess, but not wrong.

What they need is to spend a significantly greater proportion of their time on ‘language use’ and less on ‘language knowledge’. This is not just my personal view: it has been extensively researched, and I am unaware of any dissenting voices.

Geoff Jordan’s posts and presentation:

Challenging the Coursebook: The presentation with audio (just follow the link to the slides)

Dellar defends the Coursebook

Challenging the Coursebook: Part 2

In fact, how can I disagree with Geoff when in essence he calls teachers to look at their local reality and learners before looking outside, just like Paulo Freire did? It’s a call for reflection and action!

12 thoughts on “To coursebook or not to coursebook? is that really the question?

    • I look forward to your thoughts Geoff. Thanks for the talk and it amazes me that people are still arguing against something that is so obvious which Scott Thornbury had been saying for years. I reckon that any attempt to challenge the industry as it is now will lead to people nitpicking Dogme so they can disqualify the debate around structural syllabus. I mean, let’s keep it structural but just focus on lexis for instance? Among all the voices out there, I keep yours, Scott, Phillip, Paul Nation, Penny Ur, Marcos Benevide, John Fanselow’s, and teachers who dare to question, experiment (try for themselves) in their class and blog about it. I’m a bit tired of the ELT teacher training circle whose practice don’t really seem to take research really into account, or they become too narrow minded and keep their focus on a niche market.

      That’s why John Fanselow is one of my favorite teacher trainer out there. He doesn’t give you answers. He questions you. He make you think! The best type of teacher in my humble opinion.

      Liked by 1 person

  1. hi Rose

    just been going through the twitter convo from yesterday and some related blog posts

    from what i have able to glean from responses to Geoff’s coursebook critique, none so far have addressed his points; this is paralled in the responses to Scott Thornbury’s and Philipp Kerr’s critiques of adaptive learning where their substantial points have been ignored

    the dominance of coursebooks is pervasive i think in part because its ideology is not talked about enough so glad to see some discussion going on though i wonder how much goes on offline?

    for example for an upcoming course i have been told to get a book within one week for the class?! no consideration whether they need a book or not, it is part of what the class has paid for when taking on the contract so no discussion on appropriacy is even deemed suitable for discussion

    i feel “rational” discussion in such arguments only lead so far hence less rational but “humourus” critiques are called for

    here is one (maybe not to all tastes so don’t click if sensitive to certain practices) on the supposed neutrality of technology/coursebooks


    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks Mura for reading and commenting. Discussions like that is so tiring because of that exactly. People failed to address the issue instead they keep going around in circles with side issues without really admiting anything and making clear their position.

      The negative response mostly comes from material writers. No surprise there!


  2. I really appreciate this post, Rose. There’s a lot to take in, and I’ll be doing some reading tonight before replying a bit more with some thoughts. Thank you for starting the discussion on Twitter yesterday. It’s been great to question my beliefs and see a bigger picture.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I really appreciate you taking part on it Laura. And thanks for the encouragement. I have a local project lining up and I guess I can get it off the ground next year. It certainly involves all the issues we have been talking about.

      It reminds me of a quote from Lorax. I’ll post and tag you on twitter. 🙂 A big hug and let’s keep pushing the conversation cause at some point, people will listen.


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